Flip Arbelaez couldn’t stay away.
The New York native launched his career in Las Vegas with Ark Restaurants in 1996, helping roll out the food-and-beverage program at New York-New York. After working his way up through several management positions in the local market, Arbelaez left in 2011 for an opportunity few in the industry could turn down: An opening to run The Plaza Food Hall by Todd English, inside The Plaza in New York. There, Arbelaez said, he made a quantum leap as an operations manager, controlling food and beverage costs and managing a unionized labor force to maximize profitability.
But Arbelaez returned to Southern Nevada in 2013 for a shot at a new career pinnacle: The chance to own his own place.
In September, Arbelaez and a business partner, chef Doug Bell, opened Pot Liquor Contemporary American Smokehouse at Town Square. The restaurant is part of Authentic Kitchen Alliance, a restaurant-management and development business that Arbelaez and Bell launched with partners Kara Berg, who’s president, and Paul Alfa, the chief financial officer.
Question: How has the local food-and-beverage scene changed since your first stint here in the mid-1990s?
Answer: It has evolved tremendously. The reason I left New York in 1996 at age 20 was because New York was already the big talk of the food world. Vegas was about to blow up and change drastically. It was not going to be about buffets and cheap prime rib. A lot of celebrity chefs were starting to target Las Vegas as a big stage. I followed those rumors.
Since then, Las Vegas has become one of the country’s food giants. It’s a fantastic market that serves many different demographics. It can focus on different types of dining, from (quick service) to fast-food franchises to fine-dining restaurants on and off of the Strip. It evolved quickly and survived a tough recession. I’m very proud of Las Vegas.
Question: Why did you open Authentic Kitchen Alliance?
Answer: The idea is to have two divisions, one that focuses on restaurant development and the other on training and management. We can help out an ailing restaurant by getting on board and retraining the staff. We’ll look for partnerships through which we manage their people. On the development side, Pot Liquor was a low-cost formula that we thought was the right concept to launch.
Question: Why the Pot Liquor concept now?
Answer: Everything about Pot Liquor is designed to set ourselves apart from Lucille’s, Rolling Smoke or Famous Dave’s. Pot liquor is a colloquial term that describes the broth left behind when making collard, turnip or mustard greens. It describes something authentic that takes a lot of heart and soul to make. We wanted something where people could recognize that we are typical, hard-working, culinary-arts people who care about food. And we want people to understand that our food is being done a little better than barbecue food elsewhere. It’s not being warmed up or prepared in a commissary kitchen. We’re actually smoking in this house.
Also, there’s nothing (barbecue-related) in the immediate area. And Town Square has a fantastic draw of locals to tourists, with about 70-30 locals to tourists. We thought it was a great fit.
Barbecue is something there just isn’t an abundance of in Las Vegas. While I was in New York, I did a little consulting for a company and met some folks franchising a Southern Hospitality restaurant. We spent some time dining at Blue Smoke in the Flatiron District. That experience inspired Pot Liquor. It was a nice sit-down restaurant, without the stigma that sometimes comes with barbecue, with its plastic plates and flatware.
Question: Downtown Summerlin has about 20 restaurants. Something new seems to open in downtown Las Vegas every day. And SLS Las Vegas just opened with its restaurant lineup. How will you compete?
Answer: Our plan is to focus on social-media marketing, and campaigning at different events. We plan on being deeply rooted and involved in the community as far as philanthropy and charity. We’ve already done some work on behalf of Susan G. Komen. We also want to be more of a restaurant for locals. And we’ll just stay honest with our cuisine. If you’re looking for barbecue, we want to be the No. 1 choice. We’ve made a difference. We want to continue to make a difference, and we want to be known not just for barbecue, but for refined food that offers great takes on Southern classics.
Question: What are your career goals?
Answer: To expand Authentic Kitchen Alliance to different markets around the country. We have very fresh, new ideas that aren’t here or in other markets desperate for that kind of thing. But more than anything, we want a big presence in Las Vegas. We’re expanding into a management and training facility through which we hope to get involved with hotels and restaurants. One of my mentors said, “If you get this right, I’ll hire you to retrain our entire company.”